On June 15, 1215, King John (1199–1216) was surrounded on the battlefield at Runnymede by a cordon of England's most powerful barons, who demanded royal recognition for certain liberties and legal procedures they enumerated in a written document known today as the Magna Charta. Contained in the Magna Charta's 63 chapters are the seeds of trial by jury, due process, HABEAS CORPUS, and equality under the law. The Magna Charta was reissued three times during the reign of Henry III (1216–72) with some minor alteration, and confirmed by the Crown more than 30 times thereafter.
Sometimes called the Great Charter, the Magna Charta is widely considered to be the foundation of the English and U.S. constitutional systems, representing the first time the often tyrannical power of the monarchy was restrained by law and popular resistance. The Magna Charta was cited by SIR EDWARD COKE, esteemed English jurist and member of the House of Commons, in opposition to the monarchy's assertion of absolute power in the seventeenth century. During the American Revolution, colonists relied on the Magna Charta when they convened the First CONTINENTAL CONGRESS to restore the rights lost under the coercive legislation of Parliament.
Almost from its inception, the Great Charter has been imbued with two separate meanings, one literal and the other symbolic. The literal meaning is reflected by the original understanding of the Magna Charta in the thirteenth century; the symbolic meaning was developed by subsequent generations, which interpreted its provisions in light of a changing political landscape. The literal meaning was associated with the concrete rights enforced by the barons against the monarchy; the symbolic meaning became associated with the RULE OF LAW, an impartial system of justice, and government by the consent of the people and their representatives. To understand the symbolic importance attached to the Magna Charta, one must view the literal meaning in its original context.
The Magna Charta is the product of three competing legal jurisdictions: royal, ecclesiastical, and baronial. The royal system of justice maintained jurisdiction over all matters that
affected the monarch's peace, directly or indirectly. Royal courts heard disputes at a central location in Westminster, and royal itinerant judges traveled locally to dispense the monarch's justice to communities across England.
The Catholic church, with the pope presiding as the spiritual head in Rome, ran the ecclesiastical courts. These courts maintained jurisdiction over the discipline of the church's clergy, religious offenses such as heresy, and most moral, marital, and testamentary matters
Baronial courts were governed by barons, powerful men who were given titles of dignity by the Crown and who held large parcels of land, known as manors, from the monarch. Each baron, as lord of his manor, was invested with the authority to hear disputes involving his tenants, men and women who agreed to work the land in exchange for shelter and security.
John alienated both the ecclesiastical and baronial jurisdictions during his reign as king, converting them into adversaries. The first ten years of John's reign were consumed by controversy with the church. John considered the pope to be subordinate to the Crown and treated the archbishop as a mere civil servant. The church, on the other hand, considered itself to be a separate and independent sovereign that had shared power with the Crown since the time of Henry I (1100–1135). Henry I and the church had agreed that the nomination of bishops in England would tacitly remain with the king. But the pope retained power to confirm bishops by conferring upon them the honorary symbols of their title, the spiritual staff and ring.
The agreement between Henry I and the church provided no resolution for the controversy between King John and Pope Innocent III at the outset of the thirteenth century. The controversy began when Innocent III rejected John's candidate for archbishop of Canterbury and substituted his own choice, Stephen Langton, a man of superior "moral and intellectual greatness" (Trevelyan 1982, 146). John responded by confiscating the church's property in England. The papacy, whose power had grown as a result of its compromise with Henry I, subsequently undertook a series of steps to damage the Crown's prestige and credibility.
The pope excommunicated King John, suspended religious sacraments in England, and declared the English empire a forfeit from God. Facing growing pressure from the church and increasing unpopularity among Catholics within his own country, John surrendered England to the papacy, receiving it back as a fief, which meant the Crown was now subordinate to Rome and was required to pay homage to the pope. These royal concessions satisfied the pope and made him a cautious ally of the Crown. Archbishop Langton was determined to achieve similar concessions for the barons.
The grievances voiced by the barons were quite different from those voiced by the church. The barons' dissatisfaction stemmed from the manner in which the royal system of justice had been abused by King John. Prior to the reign of HENRY II (1154–89), ENGLISH LAW had comprised a loose collection of customs and traditions followed by a variety of ethnic groups scattered across the realm. Henry II created a centralized system of justice that emanated from London, which the monarch's officials administered in a uniform manner to all English people in common. Although this "common law" established a body of rights and procedures by which all litigants appearing before the ruler's courts would theoretically be treated the same, it also vested an enormous amount of power in the Crown. The tension separating ARBITRARY royal power from the principle of equality under the law erupted during the struggle between King John and his baronial magnates.
King John regularly sold legal rights and privileges to the highest bidder, rewarded favorites, punished enemies, and otherwise administered justice in an erratic and unfair fashion. For a dispute to be heard by the royal courts, parties were required to pay the monarch fees, which varied from case to case depending on the circumstances. If the Crown was in need of emergency revenue—and it seemingly always was during the reign of King John—these litigation fees were increased commensurate with the urgency of a particular financial crisis. Litigants in good graces with the monarch typically paid lower court fees than litigants in disfavor. A defendant who requested the postponement or suspension of a legal matter was required to pay a greater fee than the plaintiff was charged.
Such litigation fees, which were paid in all legal matters—civil, criminal, matrimonial, and probate—simply enabled parties to assert their claims and defenses before the royal court. They did not guarantee a particular outcome, although the amount paid may have influenced the outcome, and they bore no relationship to the penalty or fine imposed on the losing party. Consequently, defendants who paid an exorbitant fee just to present an unsuccessful defense often faced fines of an equally outrageous amount. Defendants who suffered incarceration for a wrongdoing were usually forced to purchase their freedom from the monarch.
The manner in which the ruler enforced and collected royal debts was no less capricious. Litigants who could not afford to pay the legal fees set by the Crown frequently borrowed money from the ruler in order to pursue a particular right or remedy. The terms of such loan agreements were typically draconian. As collateral for these loans, John required the debtors to pledge their estates, PERSONAL PROPERTY, and sometimes family members. In one case, a debtor was forced to pledge his castle and four sons as collateral. On other occasions, friends and family members of the debtor were held hostage by the king until the loan was repaid in full.
In some instances, the king simply forgave a loan because the debtor was a personal friend, had promised political favors, or had provided an invaluable service. In most instances, the invaluable service was military duty. During the thirteenth century, each baron was required to serve as a soldier in the monarch's army, and provide the Crown with a certain number of knights for military service. A fine could be paid in lieu of the baron's military service, and a tax, known as scutage, was then paid in lieu of the knights' service. When King John launched a military campaign, he dramatically increased the fines and taxes for nonservice, and used these monies to pay mercenaries to fight his battles.
Although King John dreamed of building an English empire through military conquest on the European continent, he was an utter failure on the battlefield. With each military loss, the miscellaneous economic demands made by the Crown seemed less justified and more absurd. It is not surprising, then, that the barons renounced loyalty to the king, plotted his assassination, and ultimately compelled his capitulation to the Magna Charta.
The grievances King John promised to redress in the Magna Charta represent both the substance of the Great Charter's original meaning and its later symbolic import. The document's immediate purpose was to appease the baronial leadership. In this vein, it provided that justice would not be sold, denied, or delayed (ch. 40), and ensured that certain rights and procedures would be "granted freely" without risk of "life or limb" (ch. 36). It guaranteed the safe return of hostages, lands, castles, and family members that had been held as security by the Crown for military service and loan agreements. The Magna Charta mandated the investigation and ABOLITION of any "ill customs" established by King John (ch. 48), and required that no "justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs" be appointed unless they "know the law of the land, and are willing to keep it" (ch. 45).
The phrase "law of the land" is interspersed throughout the Magna Charta, and is emblematic of other abstract legal concepts contained in the Great Charter that outlasted the exigencies of 1215. Nowhere in the Great Charter is "law of the land" defined, but a number of sections offer an early glimpse of certain constitutional liberties in embryonic form.
For example, the American colonies equated "law of the land" with "due process of law," a legal principle that has been the cornerstone of procedural fairness in U.S. civil and criminal trials since the late 1700s. The DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments has been relied on by the U.S. Supreme Court as a source for substantive rights as well, including the right to privacy.
Chapter 39 of the Magna Charta linked the law-of-the-land principle with another important protection. It provided, "No free man shall be seized, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled or injured in any way, nor will we enter on him or send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." In 1215, a person obtained "lawful judgment of his peers" through a communal inquest in which 12 knights or landowners familiar with the subject matter of the dispute took an oath, and swore to testify truthfully based on their own knowledge or on knowledge gained from an EYEWITNESS or other credible source.
This primitive form of fact-finding replaced even cruder methods—such as trial by battle, where the disputants fought savagely until one party begged for mercy or died, and the victorious party was presumed to have God and Right on his side. The process of one's peers in the community rendering judgment also presaged the modern trial by jury recognized by the SEVENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution, which similarly entitles a defendant to be tried by a body of jurors that is a "truly representative" cross section of the community (Glasser v. United States, 315 U.S. 60, 62 S. Ct. 457, 86 L. Ed. 680 ).
The U.S. Supreme Court has also traced the origins of modern habeas corpus law to chapter 39 of the Magna Charta (Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 106 S. Ct. 2639, 91 L. Ed. 2d 397 ). Habeas corpus is a procedure that authorizes a court to determine the legality under which a person is jailed, imprisoned, or otherwise detained by the government. If the court finds that the person was deprived of liberty through "due process of law," continued detention is permissible until trial, where guilt and innocence are placed in issue. Similarly, the Magna Charta validated the continued imprisonment of persons who had been originally incarcerated by the "law of the land."
In Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 111 S. Ct. 2680, 115 L. Ed. 2d 836 (1991), the Supreme Court also pointed to the Magna Charta as an early source of its EIGHTH AMENDMENT proportionality analysis. Chapter 20 of the Great Charter prohibited the monarch from imposing a fine "unless according to the measure of the offense." It further provided that "for a great offense [a free man] shall be [punished] according to the greatness of the offense." Under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the Supreme Court has echoed this principle by prohibiting state and federal governments from imposing fines and other forms of punishment that are disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense for which the defendant was convicted.
The contemporary significance of the Magna Charta is not confined to the areas of civil and CRIMINAL PROCEDURE. The Great Charter prohibited the government from assessing any military tax such as scutage "except by the common counsel of [the] realm" (ch. 12). The common counsel comprised persons from various classes of English society, including bishops, abbots, earls, and barons. The common counsel was a forerunner to Parliament and Congress as a representative body limiting the power of the government to pass legislation, particularly tax legislation, without popular consent.
The common counsel also proclaimed what would become a battle cry of the American colonists: No Taxation without Representation. Indeed, some colonists decried the STAMP ACT, a statute passed by Parliament that taxed everything from newspapers to playing cards, as an illegal attempt to raise revenue in violation of the Magna Charta. Other colonists cited "the assembly of barons at Runnymede, when Magna Carta was signed" as precedent for the Continental Congress (Bailyn 1992, 173 n. 13).
The achievement of the Magna Charta, then, is found not only in the original meaning understood by Englanders of the thirteenth century, but also in the subsequent application of the document's principles. The Magna Charta began as a peace treaty between the baronial class and the king, but later symbolized a written contract between the governed and the government, a contract that included the right of rebellion when the government grew despotic or ruled without popular consent.
The Magna Charta also came to represent the notion of government bound by the law, sometimes referred to as the rule of law. The distinction between government according to law and government according to the will of the sovereign has been drawn by legal and political philosophers for thousands of years. This distinction was also made during the reign of King John. For example, Peter Fitz Herbert, an important landowner, complained that his father had been "disseised" of land "by the will of the king" despite evidence that the land belonged to his family as a matter of "right."
In another case, jurors returned a verdict against the Crown because the king had acted "by his will and without judgment" (Holt 1965, 91). For subsequent generations, in both England and the United States, the Magna Charta signified the contrast between tyrannical government unfettered by anything but the personal whims of its political leadership, and representative government limited by the letter and spirit of the law. The Magna Charta implied that no government official, not even an autocratic monarch asserting absolute power, is above the law.
Finally, the Magna Charta has come to symbolize equality under the law. Although the baronial leadership of 1215 represented a privileged class of male landowners, many provisions of the Magna Charta safeguarded the interests of women as well. For example, the Magna Charta granted women the right to refuse marriage and the option to remarry. It also protected a widow's DOWER interest in one-third of her husband's property.
Some provisions of the Magna Charta applied more broadly to all "free" individuals (ch. 39), whereas other provisions seemingly applied to every person in the realm, free or not. Chapter 16, for example, stated that "no one" shall be compelled to perform service for a knight's fee, and chapter 42 guaranteed a safe return to "anyone" who left the realm.
The most telling provision in this regard was chapter 40, which provided that "justice" will be sold to "no one." This provision embodies more than the idea that justice is cheapened when bought and sold. It also underscores the principle that all persons, rich and poor, must be treated the same under the law. An extension of this principle was captured by the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution, which, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, invalidates laws that discriminate on the basis of, among other things, race, gender, national origin, and ILLEGITIMACY.